A Profile of the Life of James B. Mason, Mosaic Artist
By A. Garland Adair
Curator of History, emeritus, Texas Memorial Museum, University of Texas and a Knight of San Jacinto
From "Texas Heroes Mosaics by James B. Mason," First Edition. Longview, TX: Texas Mosaic Museum and Gallery, Inc., 1962.
“To have a dream, to work towards it, to achieve it, regardless of time with patience, is a great satisfaction to man, and a contribution to the world.”
James B. Mason was born November the 7th, 1898, in the 19th century, in Durham, North Carolina. When he was eleven years old, his father, a banker bought the old Lipscomb Place. The old plantation home stood on a knoll creeping with vines and wisteria. Out from it a short distance to the West, stood the mossed graves and markers as reminders of the days before the Revolution. His father restored it and there today is the arrow-stoned marker of Daniel Boone, commemorating that great trail which runs for mile through the plantation.
James Mason, as a boy was fascinated with the vast expanse of woods and the variety of tress that covered the old place. He began to chop down various types of tress, noting particularly the many hues and colors: reds from cedar, browns from walnut, tans from pines, yellows or gold from the hedge apple, creams from holly, etc.
He would cut off pieces from the trees, sand, shine and polish them at night in the old carriage house. The grains and colors of each wood after polishing under the dim light there fascinated him for long hours after the old plantation house was quiet, dark and asleep.
One day his father found one of the first attempts of his dream of a perspective mosaic in woods in the harness room and said, “Why don’t you go into the house and get some of your mother’s oils and see what you can do with them.” He realized the crudeness of his work, but had not looked for this reprimand. Instead of accepting defeat, his father’s words gave him more determination and a greater desire for accomplishment, for he knew what he was trying to do had never been done before. There was no teacher, and he, for the first time, was trying to create from woods a perspective mosaic portrait, or a third dimensional effect in Mosaic Art, a heretobefore purely decorative art. To achieve this eventually, he knew he had to go into hundreds of thousands of separate cuts and insertions.
His first ten years were of trial and error, but with a determined perseverance toward his goal. He collected woods from all over the world, the same as a boy collects stamps, searching desperately for colors and more colors and still more colors, in woods. Today his woods run the gamut of colors, except blue, and his collection contains woods from the four corners of the earth. He works from some 200 jars containing hand-cut mosaic inlays of various hues and colors. Ironically there is a blue to be found in a wood. Mason will not use it, for the blue is created in various streaks in some red oaks to be found in Mississippi. When the wood is split open, he says, it oxidizes with air, which causes the blue to be formed, and he is afraid it might fade. Instead, he uses the last rings of a walnut tree and inserts spear heads of cream-color woods into them. He will not use a paint, stain or dye, or any coloring matter in the natural color of woods, for he states he would not know what might happen in a thousand years from now.
His Grandmother on his mother’s side came from France, his Grandfather from Germany. They settled in Durham, North Carolina, when Durham was a flag stop. Mason often tells about the most beautiful painting he has ever seen, which was a self-portrait by his French Grandmother, the only portrait she ever did. In his early days he would spend his Saturdays away from he plantation and sit for hours watching the buggies and surreys being built at his German Grandfather’s buggy shop. The thing that fascinated him was the elaborate inlay-work in the spokes of the wheels and the dash boards. An old abandoned spinet piano in his family was never safe from his ardent search for woods. He stripped it, finally, of its rose wood and its black ebony wood keys.
Each summer he returned from “Prep” school (Webb School) and from Vanderbilt University, and would work on the plantation, and at nights would pursue his determination to fulfill his great dream of creating a particular kind of mosaic portrait with a depth and perspective look, although flat, with a third dimensional effect in woods with their in-grown natural colors.
Each of his mosaic pieces today approximately some 500,000 to 800,000 pieces of separate cut mosaic inlays. These mosaics, recognized by eminent authorities, are classed as one of the most suitable forms for preserving the memory of people who served their country and humanity.
His father was English, and his father’s plantation and the Cameron Quarters plantation, nearby, with its over 5000 acres, were grants from the Kings of England. As sacred there as the green covered graves were the tall majestic pines that had withstood the ravages of winds and storms. James Mason, during his life on the plantation, would often mingle-down at the old Negro quarters with the old darkies, and there in the banjo twilight would sing and open his heart up with them to the heavens. These old darkies were descendants of slaves, and many had not ventured beyond the confines of these old plantations. There James Mason learned a simplicity of life, a thankfulness to God for the freedom of living, for the pursuit of happiness, and for the gift of life itself. He often mentions the old creaking well, the cool water, the old swimming place, the watermelon cutting on the grassy-green earth, the profusion o singing birds, the twilight spiritual-song hours, and the humbleness of the humble. The expression of the old darkies there, “Break bread with me,” as Mason spoke of it, meant in their dialect: “I will fix everything I has fer-yer, my old last winter’s ham, you kin jess smell rat now de-ole hickery smoke in it, dares plenty olde heavy fried chicken jess a-walkin’ round in de-yard, ess a-waitin’ to be cotched, and you kin go over to the ole brush arbor and set dare in peace.” These have always been an inspiration in Mason’s heart of love and sharing.
When Mason had graduated from Vanderbilt University in the class of ’21 he went home to take his place in the business world and become a real estate operator. He divided his day into eight hours of work in business, eight hours on his mosaic work, and eight hours of sleep. As the years passed, his eight hours off business gradually dwindled and were devoted to his love for his mosaics. This work became more than a pursuit and hobby, and began to bring in the revenue, yet a very small one. His mosaic portraits, in his own original technique, were small, unrecognizable by critics, and little heard of. “Jim” as I now k now and speak of him, pursues his art in the belief that there is n o end to what an individual can do, so long as he does not care who gets acknowledgement.
Not discouraged by the financially slim returns, he turned more and more from his business to his obsession of creating larger and finer mosaic portraits. In one period of twenty years, he created the famous show-group of all the Presidents of the United States, known as the “Million Dollar Collection.” This group was created in some 16,000,000 pieces of separate cut mosaic insertions. It has drawn much attention from art critics over the country, a few of whose comments are printed in this book.
His latest works are his ten Texas Heroes, which won him the Texas Distinguished Service Medal and the Texas Heritage Foundation citation scroll, signed by Governor Price Daniels, the Honorary Chairman. This medal was authorized in 1955 by the United States Congress, minted by the United States Mint, in commemoration of the Texas Declaration of Independence and the three major battles of the Texas Revolution, and the medal and scroll given to James B. Mason with this citation:
“For his Outstanding Contribution in Mosaic Art to his State and Country, and in recognition of Distinguished and Meritorious Public Service in Preserving the Texas Heritage.”
The prints of the ten Texas Heroes, appearing in this Book are first prints from the original, which today hang in the Texas Mosaic Museum and Gallery in Longview, Texas.
In this Galley are his famous original Christ mosaic portraits which have been shown over the country, his technology board, showing how the work is done, a display of rare woods, collected from the far East, and important papers concerning his work, together with other rare authenticated papers, documents, letters, and books pertaining to the rich heritage of Texas. All of these are displayed in th Texas Mosaic Museum and Gallery in East Texas, the gateway to the birth of Texas.
This is part of the story of James B. Mason’s life and his work, which won him the distinction of being the first man to create perspective in Mosaic Portraits, although his mosaic work is flat in style and upon close observation. Some historians and educators quote him as saying, “It is my hope that students and craftsmen, and people who work with their hands, and those who love the beautiful and intricate, and seek new and unknown ways, might gain an inspiration from my humble efforts and new techniques, improve on them, and seek new ways of fascinating the world in a cultural upheaval in the fields of arts, culture, and crafts. “A creation of love, or a sacrifice, or a warm emotion in a Christ Portrait,” as he expresses it, “is a sermon.” He states there are many ideas and plans within his mind to experiment again and create newer and more beautiful things for prosperity ad study and preservation. “I have but one life,” he says, “buy maybe God will extend it until I am through.”
His religions were and are many. His mother was an Episcopalian, his father a Methodist, his grandfather a Presbyterian, a favorite uncle was a Deacon and Baptist. He expresses his faith in this way, “All my faith is in God, in man, in achievements, under Gods great dome of the heavens above me, where I a covered in peace and in faith and in prayer by the infinite expenses which are God’s and above which there is God.
WHY HE CAME TO TEXAS
Quoted from his own words as he spoke them.
“Many years ago, my brother, Robert Bruce Mason, older than I, moved to Texas and wrote glowing letters of its rich heritage, its wonderful, friendly people, the color and spirit and the sacrifices, struggles and tears of those who so gallantly, by determination, and in many instances, death finally gained their independence from Mexico, and became, united under one common bond to become the great Republic of Texas.
My brother, who received many medals during the first World War, among them the Croix de Guerre, was appreciative of what the Alamo stood for, the battle of Goliad, and the decisive battle of San Jacinto, giving freedom to the great State and a great people.
My brother died and was buried in San Antonio, in the shadows of the Alamo. My father, a banker at the time in North Carolina, wanted to move my brother’s body to his native State of North Carolina.
I said, “Leave my brother near the immortals in Texas,” for my brother’s life was devoted to the pursuit if freedom.
Moved by these stirring stories about the rich heritage of Texas, I came to Texas, even after my death, and through generations to come. I am now a Texan by choice. My Gallery is here, my homestead is here in Longview, and my little farm is nestled in the hills out from it, where I will continue to create, and make the Alamo in mosaics and many of the State’s Capitols in my technique and art, and someday, God willing, I will be buried here. “These are my feelings, hopes, aspirations and intentions.”